Hisashiburi, Everyone! It’s been a little while, but we hope you have all kept safe and warm through the holidays and are ready for the challenges of 2021. In the spirit of facing new challenges, it’s good to move towards a new year with a fresh perspective. Looking at anything with “fresh eyes” can give you a unique view point into something you thought was meaningless or troublesome otherwise. A challenge may seem too difficult until you look at it differently. Life may seem boring, but from another aspect you can always find some kind of beauty in the menial and mediocre. This month, we’d like to introduce you to local Kansai Photographer & Designer, Laura Thonne a.k.a. “Dex” who has mastered this notion of viewing life from every possible angle and capturing something beautiful. Even under the circumstances of a tight schedule, Thonne was willing to share her wonderful view of her journey and life through her looking glass.
Black Creatives Japan: Where is home for you and how did you come to find yourself in Japan?
Laura Thonne: My “home,” as you say, for me it’s definitely Japan. I feel really good here, much better than how I felt in my home country, Belgium. I come from Schaerbeek, Brussels, the capital. I always felt different there, like I didn’t belong. There were a lot of things that people did that I never understood and that are very “Belgian”… Belgium is a very tiny country and a bit old-fashioned, especially when you compare with the countries nearby, The Netherlands, France, Germany, also England. It’s changing now though, slowly but surely! And how I came to find myself in Japan is a very long story.
I found my love for Japan when I was 13 years old when a friend at school introduced me to a song from Utada Hikaru. I directly fell in love with the music style and also the language. I then began digging up more about her and other artists from Japan. I found out about Visual Kei and wow, that was like a revelation! I loved it SO much for so many years. I started dressing like them, (I wore a goth style before that and was very into metal music already), and had so many colors in my hair. I was straightening it until I was eighteen. I really miss coloring my hair! I was going to this school that was very classic, in that you have to dress well and behave like a “good kid.” It was hard to express myself until I transferred to an art school at 16 years old.
In Brussels, French speakers have to learn Dutch in school, but, like Japanese people with English in school, when you’re forced to learn a language, you just don’t want to. Which is why I was studying Japanese instead of Dutch during the Dutch classes, haha! I was learning the kana alphabet with my friend, who introduced me to Utada Hikaru. We were making up dialogues in French, but writing them in hiragana, it was a lot of fun! I also found out about Japanese (and Korean) dramas, which is what made me actually want to learn the language seriously. So at 16, I transferred to an art school to start learning more about my hobbies and passion, Photoshop and design (which I started when I was 12) in order to become a graphic/web designer in the future. At 16, I also started learning Japanese during night classes, two hours/week, and practicing a lot by myself. I wanted to really learn the language to be able to work as a designer in Japan someday. In university in Belgium, you have to do an internship during your last year before graduating. I definitely wanted to do it here in Japan, to see what it was like. So I found a web design internship here in Osaka, in 2014, and that’s how I found myself in Japan! I desperately wanted to come back to live here, I knew I belonged here and not in Belgium.
BCJ: That’s really amazing, Laura! Belgium may not have been a complete fit, but like many others here, you set yourself apart and did what was necessary to follow your goals! So you do a few different things in the creative field: photography, design, and YouTube… Can you talk a bit about each of these hobbies and what inspired you to pursue them?
LT: I spoke a bit about my passion for design in my previous answer. I don’t remember exactly how I found out about it, but I was 12 years old when I found this online forum about design. People were making cool avatars and banners for their profile. I was curious and I wanted to try it too. So I downloaded this free software at the time, called Photofiltre. I think I told my father about it too and then he told me he had a cracked version of Photoshop that he could install on my computer (we’re all geeks/nerds in my family, just saying! I started playing around with a computer at age eight). The Photoshop version was 7.0, so old! It was then that I started using Photoshop every single day, playing on design forums and also making friends there (some are still good friends now), cracking the newest version every time there was one. My forever favorite is CS2! I miss those times (laughs).
Photography came a bit later, I think I was 14 when my father got me a camera. It was a “bridge camera,” so you can’t remove the lens on these. A Fujifilm Finepix, I can’t remember which model. I was taking photos of literally anything: Flowers in our garden, auto-portraits, stuff in my home…Then editing them in photoshop and posting them on Deviantart along with my designs. Before my internship in Japan, I started working in order to finance it, which I couldn’t in the end because of personal reasons, but my father was very kind to pay for everything for me… I was still able to get myself a new camera, the Canon 600D that I wanted for the movable LCD screen, which I needed for my YouTube videos. I also wanted a new camera for my internship in Japan. I took it everywhere with me, taking pictures and posting them on Facebook and Tumblr at the time. I didn’t know it yet, but I was taking a lot of street photos, which is now my main and favorite category in photography.
After my internship, when I returned to Belgium, I actually stopped photography. I thought Belgium wasn’t as photogenic as Japan and that there was nothing good to shoot, but I was so wrong. Three years later, in 2017, I was 24 and I really missed taking photos so I started again, more seriously this time; I properly learned how to use the camera so I didn’t use auto-mode. I went to a forest in Belgium and practiced shooting animals, flowers, scenery…and now I only shoot full-manual. Since then I never stopped taking photos, always finding new ways to improve. I still shoot street photos as my main area, but I also shoot portraits and interior photography. I would love to do more, like food and product photography.
And finally, about my YouTube channel, I actually made it back in 2009. In 2011, I started making videos regularly, about the Japanese language, mainly for practicing speaking because there are close to zero Japanese people in Belgium to meet up with and talk to. 2011 was two years after I started learning Japanese in my night classes. I was already practicing on Twitter, speaking with Japanese people and other foreigners learning the language, but I needed to practice speaking orally. I made my very first video and uploaded it in October of 2011, it’s now private because it’s very cringey (laughs). I really liked how people were interacting with me, in English or Japanese and I was learning through that process as well, so that kept me going, it was fun! I made some friends via Youtube around that time, like Loretta (Kemushi-chan), Mimei, Sharla in Japan, Micaela, and also Ayana! We were all speaking in Japanese to practice and it was a lot of fun! There was this whole Japanese learning community at that time. I also had a whole playlist (also private now), full of three to ten minute long videos I was filming and posting every day, no editing, no nothing, just me trying to talk in order to practice and trying to speak more and more smoothly. Now, when I look at them I realize how much I improved thanks to that mostly.
Eventually my videos started to get more popular; one of them made 16k views and another 10k, I was so happy. I then did my internship in Japan and was making vlogs while walking around and going to USJ or Kaiyukan… Then at one point unfortunately, like my photography, I stopped a few months after coming back to Belgium. I was really focusing on saving money in order to come back to Osaka and I didn’t have the motivation to continue making videos, especially the editing that would take me so long because of subtitles mostly. I had a full-time job so it was a bit hard. However, I still posted every now and then. I never forgot about my channel fully and my love for the Japanese language and Japan related videos. And when I finally came back to live in Japan in March of 2018, I thought I’d be motivated again, but it was not the case necessarily. It was only last year, in 2020, that I thought I’d get back at it more regularly, and I have been! Still in Japanese, now with my boyfriend and sometimes our puppy. I actually enjoy seeing the growth of my own life through my YouTube channel!
BCJ: It’s hard to stay motivated sometimes, but I’m really happy that you stuck with it and even found a community of others to share all your interests. I also absolutely love your street photography and look forward to seeing more! So just as you dreamed and worked for, you’re now a designer for a Japanese company. What’s it like there and what has your experience working for a company here in Japan been like?
LT: Working at my company, despite it being a Japanese one, is really nice! It’s very young, modern, positive, and they think about their employees, trying to make work a good thing that you enjoy doing. There is also no hierarchy. You can talk and laugh with your bosses without a problem. In a creative company, this is not rare actually. There are quite a few creative companies with the same mentality as mine. For example, we have flexible hours, we can go to work anytime until 1pm, which is awesome for people like me who want to achieve a lot in one day! The core time is between 1and 5pm, but outside this time range you can work from whenever you want and you can also work remotely if you want. I have had nothing but a great experience working at my company. Someday in the future, probably when I get the permanent status, I want to start working as a freelancer, but until then I really can see myself working here for the remaining years.
There are some differences with my previous company in Belgium, though! I recently made a video on my YouTube channel talking about them, by the way. For example, Belgian people are more extroverted and noisy than Japanese people, who are almost all introverted and reserved. I myself am introverted and reserved so I like the atmosphere at my company, but sometimes I feel like it’d be nice to have some crazy noisy people around like in Belgium (laughs). There are some extroverted people, but they still respect the general sense of calm and make noise only during appropriate times such as nomikai or sometimes during meetings. Also, the client really is God in Japan. I realized it recently with one of my web design projects. The client took weeks to decide on a homepage design, not respecting the initial schedule, so I had to make the remaining twenty pages in one week! I had to work from morning to very late at night, also on the weekend. And it’s still not done as I’m writing this, I’m still working during my weekends to respect the schedule. At least, you get a daikyuu (a holiday because you worked during a holiday) at my company. I still have four daikyuu that I need to use, I’m definitely taking them this month. In Belgium, we would definitely tell the client that we can’t work fast enough in order to get back on track with the schedule and the client would just have to adapt, since it’s their own fault. I must agree that this is something that I cannot stand, but I still understand it as it’s a part of their culture. In the end, it’s me who wanted to work here in a Japanese company so I’ve adapted.
Other than that, I also have awesome colleagues, very easy to talk and laugh with and all very open-minded. I remember one time during a nomikai, talking with this colleague about how most Japanese people think Black women are ugly. I was surprised when he said that’s because Japanese people don’t know anything, but only what society shows them and they won’t think more about it. That it’s only when they see Black women in real life that they realize that there is actually more than what they know out there.
So, overall, my company is great and I won’t change jobs for anything at all. I have many great opportunities here. I was the international design team lead for a few months until we had some issues with the other foreign designer, so now I’m the only one again in the design team, but in the future I’ll have my little international team, which I’m very excited about. I am also in charge of our international Instagram and our international projects.
BCJ: Wow! It’s so nice to hear that you’ve had such good experiences within your company. And good to know that there are Japanese people out there willing to be open minded to others. Have you had any other difficulties during your experiences here either in pursuing your creative goals or being a foreigner while pursuing these goals? What has kept you driven to keep going these days? Do you have any advice for others?
LT: I had nothing but great experiences when it comes to my goals, and creative goals. I’m feeling alive in this country. Like I mentioned before, Belgium used to be this place that was very old-fashioned and basic, with close to zero creative people, so it was really hard for me to grow as a creative in my home country. Here, there are SO MANY creative people. From web designers to photographers, fashion designers, musicians, models, artists and painters, illustrators… I have my close group of friends here (one Austrian and the rest Japanese), we are designers, game designers, illustrators and photographers. I can easily make friends with other creative Japanese people, I just click directly with them. Also, my love for Japan is keeping me motivated for my photography. I enjoy going to other cities and taking street photos. I really want to go everywhere in Japan and make physical memories with my camera.
My job as a designer also helps. Thanks to my company, I attended some really nice design events and have made many contacts. I remember once when the CEO of オバチャーン, the music band of obachans in Osaka, wanted a picture taken of him and my boss, he asked me to take it. I took only one photo but he loved it so much, he came back to have lunch with us again and gave me a big bottle of champagne to thank me! He then told me about this photo project he has in mind, I still don’t know when it would happen but I’m very excited about it.
What keeps me going these days, I don’t know, to be honest. I just try to keep going, forcing myself. I stopped street photos for a while around the end of 2019, I have almost no photos taken in 2020, but I’m now getting back into it slowly. I tell myself to take my camera when I go on a walk with my dog, which is every morning and night. Sometimes I just don’t want to and walk without thinking, but then I remember that I always see scenes outside that make me regret not bringing my camera. So now I have quite a few good photos for 2021 already, which is very nice and I’m happy about it!
So for advice, I’d say try to find ways that allow you to keep being creative, like me when I combined walking my dog and street photography. It could be drawing for 5 minutes when commuting. While waiting for a friend. Anything, no matter how small. Sometimes I take my camera out for more than an hour and I have no good photos at all, but I still did something in order to possibly shoot something in the end, and that makes me very proud.
Regarding trying to have a good experience as a creative in Japan, I would say that it’s good to stop thinking you’re a foreigner in another country and to think of it as your home as well. I love looking for design/photography events or exhibitions, I love going there and feeling like a part of the creatives of this country. Of course, I stand out, but as soon as I show that I’m the same human being as them with the same interests for design, photography, art, I can have normal and fulfilling conversations about it without a problem. I also used to be overly-shy and I always had social anxiety, but coming to Japan has changed me a lot. I’m still so nervous when I go out alone to some events, but I remind myself that I always end up having a great time so I force myself to go. This could help people with anxiety. It’s scary and we’re scared of not being able to talk properly or just being the weird one, but in the end it’s always a nice experience, we just think too much…
BCJ: I definitely feel that and while it’s hard and easy to feel ostracized, I think it’s important for most people living here whether during the short or long term, to start thinking of Japan as their home and for all of us to work hard and make it a home worth living in for everyone here. Things have been even tougher lately for people due to the pandemic. How have things been going this year for you and your family during all this?
LT: The year 2020 flew like crazy. We made almost no memories at all. When I think of 2019, I feel like it was only three months ago. My memory of 2020 is sitting on my sofa for most of the time (laughs). I also broke my ankle so I went to the hospital for the first time in my life and for the first time in Japan. For a whole week. Then for three to four months I couldn’t walk. I gained so much weight, which was really hard for me because I had finally succeeded in having and maintaining a healthy lifestyle in 2019, but I’m now finally back on track and it feels nice. I feel like 2021 is going to be much better. The only thing is that I’m still sitting on my sofa most of my days! Thanks to my job, we can work remotely. My family is fine, they now live in the countryside of Belgium with very few people around their house so they’re doing all right! They can also work remotely, which is good!
BCJ: Glad to hear that you’re doing better after such a crazy year! I agree, things are definitely looking up for 2021. I know you mentioned her a bit before, but if you don’t mind sharing, please tell us your adoption story with your sweet little pup! Has her presence changed anything for you and your partner?
LT: Her name is Ani! We adopted her from Heart-Tokushima, a dog and cat shelter in Tokushima! She was just two months old and it was in May 2020 when we adopted her. Initially, we wanted to adopt a dog at the end of 2020, but we thought that because covid-19 started in Japan and I started working from home everyday it would be the best time to have a puppy (end of 2020 is still the same as when we actually got her though).
Before finding this shelter, I was looking on the website “pet-home,” which is a Japanese website for animals who need a new family, but most of the people on there ask for you to be married if you’re a couple, which is so frustrating. There was also a lot of other strict conditions and I thought it was so stupid, no wonder people in this country still shop at pet stores, but definitely avoid those and breeders too! In the end, I found Heart-Tokushima as a shelter account on the website and I saw that it was a Canadian woman, Susan Mercer, who started it and was in charge. I knew that it was the perfect place. There is also Ark Shelter, in the North of Osaka, but they mostly have adult dogs and we wanted a baby for our first dog. Heart-Tokushima has a lot of puppies, she does a crazy job saving all these animals from getting killed in animal control.
With Ani, our life completely changed. I don’t know what it’s like to have a kid, but I’m pretty sure it’s pretty close to having a puppy! From day one for about two weeks, we couldn’t sleep because she was crying every night. We couldn’t do anything at home because a puppy needs to pee all the time and she was not potty trained at all so we needed to look for a way to train her. I tried many different ways and one in the end worked instantly. We needed to walk and tire her as much as possible for at least three hours a day, one and half hours in the morning and same at night. It was very tiring and intense for a few months! Now Ani’s 11 months old and our lives are stable again. Though, we do arrange our life around her. I’m always looking for dog friendly places, dog parks, anything! I take her out with me to meet my friends, she’s really the main thing in our lives now. I have my cat, Nox, who came from Belgium with me and I thought it would be the same, but it’s actually so different. Now I understand when we say cats are independent and dogs just need humans! We’re also thinking about moving somewhere with a lot of nature just for her (and for me since I really miss nature), but it will be in a couple of years, probably. When we do get a bigger place, we definitely want a bigger dog too. We wanted a big dog, an Akita, but it’s hard enough to find a place in Osaka City that accepts animals, so we stuck to a smaller breed; Ani is a border collie pitbull mix.
Good luck to you Dex! Can’t wait for more photos updated pet pictures and thank for giving us your time and wonderful perspective on life here in Japan! You can keep a look out for all the great work coming from Laura Thonne and other artists both in and out of Japan by taking a look at both of our posts and stories to get the latest updates. Additionally, while we are still on hold for most events this year, due to the pandemic, we ask that fellow artists, allies and everyone else out there continue to enjoy, protect support your local community and businesses in whatever ways possible.